It may seem a bit far-fetched and naive, but Bill Gates thinks he has the solutions for India's biggest challenges. How can the country solve its health-care problems, the nightmare of distributing vaccines, and the shortage of doctors? Technology, he says. Alleviate poverty and streamline public distribution of food rations? Try technology, he suggests. How about providing the urban poor with jobs? You guessed it: technology.
The idea that low-cost technological innovations could transform the lives of the poor has long been the Holy Grail of India's information technology and scientific boffins. With their country boasting nearly 7 million people working in one of the most modern IT industries in the world, Indians seem convinced that one of these days a technology-based solution will help the country vault over decades of government neglect. "India is taking its self-confidence, [the realization] that it is very innovative, and now saying let's invest in ourselves," says Microsoft (MSFT) Chairman and former CEO Bill Gates, speaking at a business forum on July 23 in New Delhi before picking up an award from the Indian government. "In spite of the tough times, this country hasn't said let's pull back on investing in the future."
To some extent, India has been a bit of a proving ground for cheap technology. Motorola (MOT ) tried producing a $14 cell phone with a screen that resembled that of older alarm clocks. It flopped. The Indian government's attempts to wire the countryside were also a bust. It tried to bring the Internet to rural areas, but with unreliable electricity, irregular phone lines, and widespread illiteracy, that project folded two years ago. "For whatever reason—the idea came too early, it cost too much, or it tried too much—these technology solutions have been mostly distractions," says Anand Tiwari, a professor at the Indian Institute of Technology who studies the rural-urban digital divide.
Farmers Use Text Messaging Such missteps haven't discouraged Gates from pushing ahead with his Indian plans. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the largest charitable trust in the world based on assets, handed out a $1 million grant in early June to Maryland's CHF International to set up a labor network for the nearly 90 million urban workers. (In one of India's largest health initiatives, the foundation has spent nearly $1 billion on HIV/AIDS prevention and other development projects.) The idea is to provide some sort of a formal connection between those who hire unskilled laborers and the laborers themselves. "These workers have nothing consistent and long-lasting," says Brian English, CHF's India director. LabourNet, or the network CHF plans to build, "is a bridge to giving them rights and jobs using cellular technology to facilitate it," says English, who says the service allows the workers to get better jobs because it shows them all the available work in specific markets.
This approach has worked well for others. A Web site called Babajob.com set up three years ago in Bangalore, India's IT capital, helps daily wage earners and domestic workers—easily the most exploited of India's labor force—find employers online, with the Web site assisting them with references, bank accounts, and insurance. The problem is that Internet access is a hurdle for most workers who have to visit CHF's offices to register. The group plans to overcome that by allowing urban poor to input data with more accessible cell phones.
With Web penetration still in the single digits in urban areas and far less in the countryside, people are looking more closely at mobile phones, which in India are cheaper to use than almost anywhere in the world. Farmers in Maharashtra, a western Indian state, use text messaging-based technology to track food prices in faraway markets, helping them negotiate with middlemen.
Promise of National ID Project But the reach of almost all of these technology-heavy projects is limited, small enough that they qualify as no more than pilots. The most ambitious effort, which began last week, is the Unique Identification project, which aims to provide 1.2 billion Indians with something they've never had before—universally accepted proof of their identity. Headed by Nandan Nilekani, the ex-CEO and a co-founder of Infosys (INFY), the idea is that an ID card with a microchip or a verifiable numerical code could curb corruption, help with bank accounts, generate access to social services, and keep track of the administration of vaccines and health issues. "I am really excited about the national identity project," says Gates, who believes Microsoft would bid for contracts in implementing the program. "The government has picked somebody with a lot of energy and intelligence, and the number of applications that can come out of that are [huge]."
In the end, say critics, the card is just a card. India's problems run deeper, ranging from a seemingly indifferent government and widespread corruption to just not enough money to go around. India's investment per capita on health care is among the lowest in the world, and even though the current government promises to build as many as 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) of new roads a day, its infrastructure is still far behind those of its peers.
Instead, the government is also looking in a direction that may seem backward: In a world enthralled with social networking, e-mail, and YouTube (GOOG), it launched a massive plan to upgrade about 1,800 Indian post offices. "More people use mail than e-mail," says Sachin Pilot, a minister for communications and IT. "And even though [cell-phone usage] is rising, as a government our priority is to provide access where markets don't."